Scientists have positively identified a skeleton exhumed from a New York cemetery as the remains of a Haitian slave who is a candidate to become America's first black saint, Cardinal John O'Connor said Saturday.
A team of archaeologists, forensic scientists and anthropologists determined that a skeleton dug up earlier this month was that of Pierre Toussaint, the cardinal said."The definitive identification was made of the bones, all of them in order, not a single one missing," O'Connor said at an archdiocesan conference on racial and ethnic issues. "This indeed is the skeleton of Pierre Toussaint."
Toussaint was born in 1766 and brought to New York at age 21 by his French owners. Still enslaved, he became a leading hairdresser in the city and was allowed to keep some of his income.
When Toussaint's owner died, he left an impoverished widow and child. In a typical act of generosity, Toussaint secretly supported them for 20 years. The widow freed Toussaint from slavery just before she died in 1807.
Once free, he bought the freedom of slaves and lavished money on charities, including an orphanage and the city's first school for black children. He also entered quarantined sections of the city to help yellow-fever victims.
Toussaint was buried at Old St. Patrick's Church Cemetery in the city's Little Italy section after his death in 1853 at age 87.
He is considered the founder of Catholic Charities because he helped the needy for 66 years when no formal systems of assistance existed.
For decades, historians have been studying the life of Toussaint, whose last name means "all saints."
The church began working to have Toussaint considered for sainthood last December, said church spokesman Joe Zwilling.
"We're interested in Pierre Toussaint's holiness and what drove him to do things," O'Connor said.
The examination of his remains is a preliminary step during the period of investigation of his life. The examination occurs before he is considered for beatification and is only an early step in a process that could take years. Toussaint's remains will stay at Old St. Patrick's Church until they are moved to St. Patrick's Cathedral, where they will be kept with the remains of bishops and other holy people, Zwilling said.